Prerequisite knowledge for the following paragraph:
1. While Nathan is in America, he left me to cover his classes.
2. Nathan hates teaching grammar. In fact, it often seems that Nathan is simply anti-grammar.
3. Russian has no definite or indefinite articles (the, a, an). This means that Russians learning English spend their whole lives mystified by this system of (to their minds) entirely unnecessary specifications regarding the exact role of nouns in the conversation up to the present point (which is basically the only unique information articles give us).* Articles are a notoriously difficult topic to teach.

For the second week in a row, Nathan’s adult conversation class had 2 students. Not the same 2 as last week, mind you. Student 1 pipes up expectantly, “Nathan said you were going to teach us how to use articles.” AWESOME. Thanks for the heads-up, Nathan. I wung it.**

*The converse of this is that Americans learning Russian spend the first month or two feeling like they talk like cavemen (“Where dog? There dog.” “Me wants pretty woman.”)

**If a native speaker can think up a sentence/structure and be understood by other native speakers, then linguists consider that sentence/structure to be correct. Thus–wing, wung, has wung.

The last few days, it’s been hovering between -20 and -25 C. When it’s this cold, your nose runs like a faucet.  This led to an unfortunate discovery: nose-cicles–the reason no one wants to know what fashion trends the Russians are setting.

This was an eye-opening week. First of all, Varvara asked me to plan a lesson (for next week) on the topic “Society and Societal Problems.” I asked her to narrow it down or give me some questions to  work from, and she said, “Oh, I don’t know, crime or poverty or something–but you don’t really have poverty in the US, do you?” Needless to say, we’ll be discussing poverty.

Probably when she comes in on Tuesday, Varvara will ask me to talk about the shootings, but there’s really nothing to say about them, and I’d rather not try.

Speaking of hard conversations, my short story club met today to discuss “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston. It’s about Delia, a washerwoman in an all-black town in Florida whose husband is physically and verbally abusive and has blatant and numerous affairs to boot. He torments her by throwing her laundry around and tromping on it, and by playing on her ophidiophobia. Basically, they hate each other, but neither leaves because they both want the house. One day, Sykes goes too far, and in a very Chopinesque (Kate, not Freddie) manner, Delia decides to reclaim what she can of her dignity.

It’s an incredibly intense story, and while normally I know what angle of attack I want to use in discussing a story, here religious imagery, gender politics, and racial segregation all seemed equally game. I worried that I was biting off more than I could chew, because all of these are topics that Russians see quite differently than I do; then again, that’s the point of the club. I decided early on not to focus on religious imagery, because very few Russians are schooled in the Christian canon (as far as I know, only 1 of my 50ish university students goes to church), so “discussions” quickly disintegrate into lectures with lists of key terms.

One of the club members suggested we start by talking about the gender politics, since it’s a very current topic in Russia. Many, if not most people, marry someone they can tolerate for practical reasons, not for love. The men wear the pants. If you’re 30 and don’t have children, then if you’re a woman, something’s wrong with you; if you’re a man, something’s wrong with your wife. If you’re 30 and not married, then, in the words of a friend of mine, “Something’s wrong with you–you must be crazy or a lesbian or something.” I don’t even know.

The topic of racism is equally challenging. Today, for instance, one club member started out by saying, “I told my husband–he’s a racist–about [Sykes’s tormenting his wife], and he said, ‘See, they (black people) are all wild!'” Fortunately, that inspired another member to tell a story about an American friend of hers who thought that all Russians were bad with numbers (???), at which point I was able to jump in with some feeble segue like “Yes, all cultures have prejudices. What prejudices do we see in the community in which our story takes place?” Straws slipping through my grip everywhere I reach.

It’s worth pointing out that it’s not fair to judge these statements by our society’s morals. The political environment on these topics is similar to the mid-20th century US, and little of what people say here is more outrageous than what we have recorded from that time. Plus, I’m confident that most of the people in that room have seen no more than 3 black people in person this year, and are unlikely to ever have had a conversation with one (according to Wikipedia–I know, I know–98.7% of Vologda Oblast’ is Russian/Ukrainian/Belorussian or Finnish). What they know about African-Americans they learn from our media, and–well, that’s another can of worms entirely.

At home, when I hear statements similar to the above, I generally make my disapproval pretty clear. Here, as an outsider, I have neither the power nor the right to change any of this. To try would be alienating and counterproductive. So all I can do is observe and offer, where possible, my culture’s perspective, in the hopes (knowledge?) that from dialogue comes progress.

Advertisements